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The bridge of Avignon

The Saint Benezet's Bridge

Gravure du Pont Saint Bénézet
The bridge with 22 arches. Engraving by Mamigoz - 17th century - via Wikimedia Commons
Pont Saint Bénézet
Balade bord du Rhône
In the Middle Ages, the Saint Bénézet bridge was part of one of the most important pilgrimage routes between Italy and Spain. It would become essential to the pontifical court, which settled in Avignon in the 14th century.

Very soon, the cardinals moved to Villeneuve to escape the pollution of Avignon, at the time described by the poet Petrarch as the "most foul and stinking city on Earth".

The bridge was at that time the most direct link between the many residences that the cardinals had had built, and the Popes' Palace situated inside Avignon's city walls.

Pont Saint Bénézet

The legend of Saint Bénézet In 1177, a young shepherd named Bénézet came down from the mountains of the Ardèche. He said he was sent by God to build a bridge in Avignon.

The Bridge of Avignon song : See the lyrics from this famous nursery rhymeRetrouvez les paroles de la célèbre comptine ! 
Extract of a plan from 1572
Extract of a plan from 1572. As well as the bridge in its entirety, we can see the windmills and the Fort St-Martin on the Rocher des Doms. Engraving by Pierre Mortier-Musée Calvet, used with the kind permission of the Municipal Archives.


Bridge Saint Benezet

The bridge of Avignon was started in 1177. 920 metres long, it had 22 arches and measured 4 metres wide.This imposing edifice, that was called the marvel of the time, was built in only 8 years, taking until 1185. The narrowness of the bridge of Avignon contradicts the famous song: "on the bridge of Avignon" one could not "dance round and round"; it seems more likely that one danced under the bridge, as an inn had been set up on the Ile de la Barthelasse, at the foot of one of the small arches.

Before the bridge, people crossed the Rhône in small boats, and this river that Man had not yet domesticated often made the crossing quite perilous. Arles haveing lost its Roman bridge, that of Avignon became the only place between Lyon and the Mediterranean to cross the Rhône. The city attracted travellers, merchants and manufacturers and quickly developed thanks to the revenus generated by the tolls. Without doubt, it had also worked in Avignon's favor when the popes made the decision to settle there in the 14th century. 

In 1226, after the terrible siege to which Louis VIII subjected the city, three quarters of the bridge was destroyed. A few years later, despite it being forbidden, the people of Avignon put themselves to the task and rebuilt it. From the former bridge only the chapel remains and is called the lower chapel because the roadway of the second bridge was raised and so the newer St Nicolas Chapel built on it is called the higher chapel.


Antique map of Avignon
Map of Avignon - 1635 - Engraving by Mérian - Vieil Avignon Museum 


From the 17th century on, the city could no longer bear the costs of the bridge's maintenance and repairs. In 1603, following strong flooding of the Rhône, one arch collapsed, then three others in 1605. Repair work didn't start until1628, interrupted by an epidemic of plague, and the bridge was not usable again until 1633. Two months later, two new arches were swept away by the Rhône.

At that time, diverse means were used to cross the river. An island, today called Ile de la Barthelasse, formd in the middle of th river bed. People left from the Philippe le Bel tower, situated in Villeneuve-lés-Avignon in the French kingdom (on the right bank of the Rhône), crossing to the island by ferry. They then crossed the island on foot following a path which led, by way of wooden stairs, to the bridge's 4 remaining arches to finally reach the city of Avignon.

The bridge of Avignon threatened so much to collapse that the relics of Saint Bénézet were taken from the St Nicolas Chapel in 1674. They were tranferred to the Celestine cloister. After being moved several times and a desecration in 1791, there remained just a few bits from the mortal remains, which are now ket in the cathedral of Notre-Dame-des-Doms.

Of the bridge itself, there only remains the four famous arches and the Philippe le Bel tower on the Villeneuve-lès-Avignon side, and of course, the famous song known around the world. 

  The bridge of Avignon
 © Photos José Nicolas - A. et Jp Fizet - F. Lochon - Avignon et Provence

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